by Kusum Rao
Seventeen years ago, I used to be a "runner." I say “runner” because I was never a very “great” runner – I could never run a half marathon, but I ran pretty consistently, religiously. I ran with sprained ankles, I ran on no sleep, I ran on no food. I knew and know now many runners that have a deep and healthy love for running, a practice that helps them connect to their body but for me “running” was a way for me to run away from myself.
I also “practiced yoga” obsessively – pursuing the most aggressive forms of the practice I could find – I had abandoned my father’s more grounded asana teachings and my mother’s meditative guidance and began living a very disciplined life of running in the morning morning, followed Bikram yoga two times a day, and sometimes another run following my evening practice. All the while, subsisting on nonfat plain yoghurt, and a spoonful of cooked vegetables every once in a while when I could feel myself start to lose consciousness in the wee hours of the night.
Everyone around me couldn’t help but congratulate me on how “healthy” I looked. My body was finally becoming something more close to “normal”. I remember feeling the world around me treating me so differently. When I looked in the mirror I hadn’t noticed a significantly smaller version of myself, I saw the same gigantic misshapen monster that I was desperately trying to shave off. I couldn’t actually see myself. Worse off, I couldn’t actually feel my body anymore. I couldn’t sense when I was hungry. It was just a vibration in my body that I had learned to put aside. At first it would be uncomfortable, but then it would start to be a source of fuel – a high of sorts. My incredibly thick strong hair began to shed dramatically – a stress response set in motion that would not stop (to this day).
I can remember the exact moment I learned that I had the “wrong” body. I was 5 years old. The things that were said to me hit so hard. I remember feeling so much guilt and shame. I went from being a happy playful goofy child to becoming withdrawn. In the years later, whenever I would I heard someone comment on the size of my body, which would happen so often, I would would be drawn back to that first intial wound - I became aware of how my body was impacting other people and the wound just grew and grew. That same year I would learn the multitude of other ways in which my body was not welcomed, struggling with gender performance living in a binary world, and being brown in an all white neighborhood, which would inflict an equal amount of trauma that continually compounded throughout my childhood.
I remember feeling so trapped in my body, feeling so much shame about the way I looked, I felt anxious at every mealtime, I felt shame about my large brown body taking up space especially in thin white spaces, which in my world, were all spaces. I practiced saying horrible things to myself in the mirror, I still remember all the things I had said. I felt so alienated from my own body, this incredible system of cells, organ, blood, veins, and spirit that was holding me together, despite the malnourishment, abuse, both physical and emotional.
As an adult I would often times look back at pictures of myself – at the age it all began, when I first learned to hate myself. I remember one day suddenly realizing – there was nothing ever “wrong” with me – little 5 year old me. Somehow I had been sold this lie, that I was supposed to look like someone else and that was the lens with which I saw the world – so far away from the here and now, residing and hiding in the thoughts of others. I had rehearsed the messages they had said to me over a lifetime – taking their words and using them as weapons against my body.
Over the past 15 years I’ve been on a journey of sorts – one to recognize and actually see my body, beyond the messages that were hardwired into me as a child, reinforced by people around me, by the print and television and then later by social media. The journey has been rocky for sure but I’ve also felt comforted by body positivity campaigns over the years, grateful for spaces like Unfold that create welcoming and loving spaces for all bodies, and absolutely enlivened by being able to wittness the incredible beauty of Lizzo’s live performance – watching her embody the full power of her sexuality was an incredibly transformative experience. (seriously – where was Lizzo when I was a kid?!)
Throughout the years I have been working towards a practice of learning how to love myself, exactly as I am, not in some future date when I might look a certain way, or achieve some new marker of success. I’ve been exploring ways to be in my physical body and explore movement, stretching and stillness in a gentle and compassionate way. This journey towards embodiment, has been, and continues to be, a rocky one, but it has brought me so much richness and wisdom about parts of myself that were left behind. There is endless self discovery as I understand more of my inner working, and the incredible rich layers of knowledge and wisdom that lay in my physical body as well. It is a whole new world of understanding and being. I’ve also been lucky to meet so many other people with similar journeys to be in community and create spaces of healing with.
There are a few things that have been really helpful and eye opening in this journey. One of those things has been practicing compassionate self touch in the morning, Upon waking I might hold my own hand, noticing the different sensations of touch – feeling for things like temperature, or texture. I notice subtle differences in how different parts of my body respond to the touch. The more I sit with this practice more the more I feel connected to the power and autonomy of my physical body. Spending more time in this world helps me to quiet some of the tapes and messages that have played on repeat in my head.
One really important thing for my Journey has been about being honest with myself about the way I am feeling when old tapes replay. Sometimes I can feel like I have “recovered” in so many ways, yet in many instances can find myself retriggered, as old problematic ways of thinking and behavior re-emerge. I have to remind myself that healing is not linear and that I can reach out to people I trust to help and support me through these things. I remind myself of the years of practice I’ve had scripting negative conditioning, and that healing from this is a practice too.
If for the new year, your goal is to explore loving yourself exactly as you are I see you, I hear you, I support this incredibly journey. If you are looking for a safe space to practice self love, I invite you to come check out my series class at Unfold – Welcoming Your Body in an Unwelcoming World. In this three part series we will explore ways to show kindness to our bodies through meditation, self massage, journaling and gentle support stretching.
Kusum's series Welcoming Your Body in An Unwelcoming World will be held over three Wednesday evenings, 6.45 - 8.45pm, starting February 12. More info here.